McGuire on Media

Students are smarter than they get credit for and they need to sell you on that

It happened twice again last week and I decided somebody has to yell the truth louder.  Two more people over 50 decried how little students know. The usual “we’re on the road to perdition” lectures followed with the whole smugness and superiority package.

Translated, what the baby boomers are really saying is that students “don’t know what I know and that makes me mad!” Never mind that students know so much more than boomers knew at 19.  Their world is so much more complex and technology driven. There are lots of scientists who tell us that technology is increasing exponentially. It’s hard to nail down specifics, but knowledge seems to double somewhere around every eight years.  And we get upset because young people might not know about Watergate or Doris Day? Come on baby boomers get a life.

My kindergarten granddaughter can describe, in some specific detail, the life cycle of a caterpillar and a butterfly. Maybe, maybe my sophomore high school biology class covered that!  We have to come to grips with the fact that students are exposed to more, know more and can do more than we can.

It always surprises me that boomers can lose their cool over the fact that a teenager doesn’t know about Vietnam, yet they don’t think twice about the fact that the first time their computer hiccups they scream for the young person’s help. We need to find perspective here and respect what young people know and not focus on what they don’t know.

That’s why teachers exist. We need to lend perspective, historical context and insight to the intriguing, challenging world our students must navigate. We can’t do that if we disrespect them or that new world.  I am not a huge fan of Facebook or Twitter or even Despite that lack of enthusiasm I engage with all of them because it is my responsibility to understand and engage in the world as it is, not as I’d like it to be.

The basic rules of our economy and our society are changing. Consumers are now in control, not centralized institutions like The Republic, Time or Newsweek.  Knowledge and power are now “distributed” and every 19-year-old with a computer has a power that is frightening to us boomers.  Important books like What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis and Wikinomics by Donald Tapscott and Anthony Williams show us how this changing world is going to leave the people who are stuck in the past, well, stuck in the past.  Jarvis talks about  focusing on talent versus tenure and the fact that new rules of commerce are going to be created, like it or not.

Snarling about young people not respecting history is not going to stop this revolution that is turning institutions on their heads and making the secure corporations of the past  an object in our rear view mirror that is smaller than it appears. Young people ask me all the time,”If big media corporations don’t exist anymore, what am I supposed to do?”

My answer to them is loud, insistent and consistent.  Sell yourself. Build your own personal brand. I tell students to become experts in the thing they have a passion for and then market that expertise with a blog, with Twitter and with a responsible Facebook page. I tell them to take advantage of every internship and every meeting with an important person. I urge them to keep that contact file bursting with people who can help them.  I want them to build networks of like-minded people with whom they they can collaborate and create.

Then I circle back and  I emphasize the responsible part of that Facebook account. I exhort young people to realize Facebook and Myspace and every other social media site are not private! I passionately counsel them that these social sites are just as much a part of their personal brand as their internships and blogs. The difference is a rowdy Saturday night captured on a cell phone and distributed on Facebook can stop a career before it gets started. A few hours of immature fun can destroy that personal brand. A lot of baby boomers, like me, should cringe at the thought of some of the things we did being captured by a cell phone camera.

Young people are smart.  Many of them, if not most,  know a lot more than we did and than we do now. Baby boomers need to open their minds to that reality. At the same time young people need to invest in selling themselves and in creating that personal brand.